May 2, 2011

The Illusion of Simplicity

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If there is perhaps one thing missing in just about any movie from the last decade, it is undoubtedly simplicity. The past ten years have introduced us to faster moving screens, enormous explosions, death-defying technology and so on. For Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, no such overly-dramatic themes take center stage; merely an old, persevering magician and a young Scottish woman not yet ready to face the world’s realities.

The Illusionist is not about a young person, dreaming of the high life, fame and fortune and his or her subsequent realization that all of those things never truly mattered in the first place. It is about an outdated old man so down on his performing luck that he cannot even get more than a grandmother, her grandchild and a drunken Scotsman to watch his show. Only ever known by his stage name, Tatischeff, the illusionist spends a good deal of his time riding around the European and English countryside, moving from one marginalized music hall to the next. Pushed to the side by the rising 1950’s rock-stars, Tatischeff finds himself welcome at fewer and fewer places.

The Scotsman proves to be good for something, however, as he helps Tatischeff finally find a brief bout of luck at a small, back-country Scottish village, where he finds not only an appreciative crowd, but also a quiet, simple young woman named Alice. Over-awed by his tricks, Alice seems to truly believe in the illusionist’s magic, constantly coming back for more. When Tatischeff leaves, she follows him, and together they head to the city of Edinburgh, where they take up residence in the hotel frequented by other old, vanishing professionals, including a ventriloquist and a clown. Tatischeff and Alice’s relationship becomes more and more like that of a doting father and daughter, until he can no longer support her as his performance is continually pushed off stage.

The Illusionist is undoubtedly sad and even almost heartbreaking, but it is also incredibly breath taking and beautiful in a variety of ways. The film’s simplicity is its greatest attribute, from the plain and minimal storyline to the traditional form of animation. Tatischeff never truly aims for either fame or fortune, always trying to simply succeed with the form of entertainment that he loves. His one true care comes in the form of his essentially adopted daughter, Alice. He constantly dotes on her, buying her clothes and adornments, and always performs tricks for her. Tatischeff’s fatherly love for Alice does not shine through, but it is ever present, as he gives up his chosen career for other, mediocre work in order to provide for her. Their simple, happy time together reminds the audience of importance of the little things.

Like the story itselft, the animation follows the theme of simplicity, employing traditional forms of 2-D animation and using the bare minimum of sound. As with Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville, the story is expertly told primarily in pantomime, with only a few, thickly accented blurbs here and there to add polish. Unlike Triplets, though, The Illusionist exaggerates its characters only slightly, in ways that accent the characters’ personality, without turning them into caricatures. Every action taken tells a part of the story, and no movement is made without meaning. Chomet again proves himself a master of visual arts, providing a profound and insightful story in such a simple manner of storytelling.

The ending of the film is sad and heartbreaking in many ways. Emptied of all that he can give, Tatischeff must not only leave behind the career that once defined him, but he must also leave Alice to her newly found lover as he can no longer support her himself. Tatischeff’s final train ride leaves one feeling empty and lost, and wondering just what you are supposed to do next. However, the ending, and also the whole film in general, leave the audience with a feeling of depth and insightfulness. The Illusionist is not a film that will excite audiences, but it is one that may just make them stop, look at their own life and try to remember what it really is that makes up the things that matter.

Original Author: Fiona Modrak